Sometimes we cannot get a song out of our head. In 1954, the Canadian quartet the Crew Cuts released their hit, “Sh-Boom (Life Could be a Dream).” The lyrics are as magical as they are romantic:
Oh, life could be a dream (sh-boom)
If I could take you up to paradise above (sh-boom) . . .
The song blared on AM car radios that summer, heading down Highways 19, 301 and 41 to Florida. With “Sh-Boom” topping the charts, tourists and residents carved out their own corner of paradise from the nation’s fastest growing state.
Modern Florida was imprinted during an extraordinary moment. Through the 1950s, Americans (or white Americans, to be more precise) expressed extraordinary confidence in government and institutions. The economy was humming, the baby boom was climaxing and Florida was booming. The Sunshine State gained more than 2 million new inhabitants during the decade. To place this in perspective, consider that in 1940, Florida’s population had not yet reached 2 million. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Arkansas and South Carolina boasted more inhabitants than the Sunshine State.
The year 1953 serves as a perfect benchmark to examine Florida and the world. The Korean War ended. Joseph Stalin, the stern, menacing leader of the Soviet Union, died. To escalate the stakes in the Cold War between Russia and the U.S., the Soviets exploded a hydrogen bomb, a weapon far more terrifying than the atomic bombs America had dropped over Japan in 1945. The U.S. detonated its first H-bomb in 1952. Dwight Eisenhower became president with the perfect political jingle: “I Like Ike.”
Many Americans felt supremely confident in 1953. Television was conquering the airwaves, as rooftops suddenly sprouted antennae. The first color television sold for $1,175. The Salk vaccine that ultimately conquered polio was approved. American ingenuity was on display, as Detroit introduced new car models: Cadillac El Dorado, Chrysler Imperial and the DeSoto Diplomat. Americans were living longer and better than they had ever imagined.
The Florida Dream awakens
The Florida Dream was in full-bore. The Sunshine State added a stunning 2.7 million residents in the decade. Most of the newcomers were transplants: widows and widowers from Wisconsin, retired machinists and accountants from New Jersey, and children of Italian, Slavic and Jewish immigrants.
Modern technology transformed Florida. In 1950, air conditioning was a luxury enjoyed in movie theaters and department stores; by 1955, an annoying noise comforted Floridians: the whir of Carrier air conditioners. Isaiah’s prophecies came true in Florida: the hot was made cool, wet became dry and the crooked bent straight.
The same confidence bordered on arrogance, violence even, as 1950s optimism begot overt oppression. The Johns Committee launched a witch hunt on college campuses to expose homosexuals, while the revived Ku Klux Klan cheered the murder of civil rights activist Harry T. Moore. State and local politicians largely ignored the Brown vs. Topeka School Board (1954) decision to integrate public schools.
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DDT, a powerful insecticide, allowed year-round living in places such as Sanibel Island. But as Rachel Carson discovered, “the elixir of death” threatened songbirds, ospreys and bald eagles.
The decade of the 1950s proved to be a case study of unchecked growth, and while few people realized at the time, painful consequences. Americans fell in love with Tampa Bay’s waterfront. Strikingly little had been developed.
Boca Ciega Bay, an early casualty, provides the compelling story of a prolific marine ecosystem caught in the crosshairs of development. The Pinellas County Commission waved a green flag to redesign nature. Within a decade, Boca Ciega Bay was transformed into what Bruce Stephenson described as a “channelized cesspool.”
To developers and lawyers, the wonky words “riparian rights” were golden. The words inserted into Florida’s constitution addressed the rights of property owners whose waterfront property extended to the high-water line on navigable waters. Translation: Owners of beachfront property held the right to dredge and fill the gulf and bay waters lapping their sand dunes. Engineers and profiteers assumed the power to transform brackish muck into houses, roads and subdivisions.
Developer Albert Furen purchased the rights to dredge and fill 504 acres of Boca Ciega Bay. Gov. LeRoy Collins attempted to halt the desecration, but developers triumphed. By 1957, Mud Key was transformed into Vina del Mar, a 225-acre project requiring almost 3 million cubic yards of fill. A Tampa Tribune headline ballyhooed, “Mosquito-Ridden Key Now Becomes Beauty Spot.” Soon, a newspaper headline announced, “Boca Ciega Bay One-Third Filled.”
Cabbage Key may be the most ambitious and/or egregious development in Tampa Bay history. In 1948, Life magazine discovered Cabbage Key, a 300-acre barrier island off Pass-a-Grille. The island had a single resident, a shoeless, white-bearded hermit. The author Hal Boyle described Silas Dent as “Santa Claus gone to seed.” Silas made Christmas presents for poor children, crafting figures from shell and wood. The only animal he ever killed was a rattlesnake.
Cabbage Key became a victim of the rampant stampede along Pinellas’ Gulf Coast. Tierra Verde emerged from the waters. The audacious development involved the transformation of 15 uninhabited keys on Boca Ciega Bay into today’s Tierra Verde. In 1958, the first dredges began to convert water into land. A St. Petersburg Times journalist observed, “A huge concrete batching plant stands silhouetted against the sun. ... Seawalls are taking shape ... What were once the islands of Pine and Cabbage Keys...” Roads and bridges connected Tierra Verde to the mainland. The last Indian shell mounds to Fort DeSoto served as fill.
‘Water’ is the watchword
If a pollster had asked residents in the 1950s to list Florida’s greatest challenge, the answer was probably “water.” Water and land made the Florida dream possible. But in the 1950s, there was too much water. How do we drain the land to grow more crops and house more people?
Floridians thought our magical springs and underground aquifers would gurgle forever. But if the most powerful word in Florida was once “inexhaustible,” the word today is “limits.” Or “unsustainable.” Or “loss.”
The supreme irony is that millions of Americans came to Florida to enjoy the gin-clear waters, abundant wildlife and pristine environment, and then stood by as the Legislature and developers transformed or destroyed the very things we loved. Consider that in 1953, panthers, bears and green turtles could be hunted, killed or eaten — legally!
In March 1953 and again in April 1957, the St. Petersburg Times ran an extraordinary series on Florida’s path to environmental ruin. Read today, the columns are both timely and depressing: timely because these journalists identified the big picture and asked the right questions. Sadly, we ignored the warnings.
Tampa Bay residents need to recognize a largely forgotten environmentalist, Lowell Brandle. A native of Oklahoma, he enlisted in the Marines during World War II at age 17, serving as a gunnery sergeant. He participated in the campaigns of Bougainville, Guam and Iwo Jima. He joined the Times in 1954. After witnessing so much death and destruction, he fell in love with the natural beauty of Florida and fought hard to preserve it. His 10-part series in 1957 was ominously titled, “Wisdom or Oblivion?” His favorite place was a cottage on the Homosassa River, where a large spring gushed millions of gallons of pure water into the river that had once enchanted Winslow Homer. He died of a heart attack, in 1965, at age 42.
Start at the green swamp
How do we journey back to 1953? Time travel is not impossible, not in Florida. Just hit the river! Past inhabitants have transformed our waterways to suit economics and desire, leaving a continuing history visible on the seawalls and waves.
To venture back and understand the Florida we have created, drop an imaginary kayak or canoe at the headwaters of Tampa Bay’s great estuarine system. Start at the Green Swamp, the gloriously unspoiled preserve north of Lakeland and east of Temple Terrace, where the lazy upper Hillsborough River organizes itself from pine flatwoods, cypress swamp and seasonally wet prairies. Follow this course downstream, 60-something miles, into the Gulf.
The Hillsborough is our Jekyll and Hyde. Urbanized and pristine, a natural treasure Floridians have also presumed to shaped around human will. The Hillsborough, as a result, serves as our living time capsule from the past century.
Not all of that is rape and pillage. During the 1930s, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) hewed the cypress and limestone blocks into the picnic shelters at Hillsborough River State Park, architectural gems we still enjoy today. A suspension bridge and path to the rapids (or “falls”) yoke together natural beauty and low-impact design.
The aesthetic was born of necessity. Before World War II, before the Cadillacs, Chryslers and De Sotos came speeding down Highway 301, the Great Depression and environmental collapse left Americans with far less cause for optimism. Lakes and rivers were flooding. Over farming had depleted the seemingly boundless Great Plains. As a response to spiking unemployment, not to mention unchecked abuse of our natural resources, CCC workers (in segregated troops) shaped the banks of the Hillsborough into a wilderness park, following the contours of water and land.
Then came the boom, the 2.7 million residents after World War II. Water in the Sunshine State seemed to bend to a thirsty population. Decades of dredging followed, with ditches and channelization still found along the Hillsborough from Temple Terrace to the bay. A winding, pristine paradise became embankment and conduit, engineered to wash clothes, irrigate lawns and drain the big storms that came every fall.
In 1960, Hurricane Donna slammed the state, dropping nearly a foot of rain in less than a week. The new residents fled. The storm wiped out the citrus crops. Local, state and federal officials responded with the same confidence and control that kicked Hitler out of Europe and vanquished the Pacific.
Drain, dredge and build some more.
A river turns into a ditch
A special act of the Legislature in 1961 created the Southwest Florida Water Management District (or Swiftmud). The Hillsborough was already industrialized at its mouth. From the early 19th century, the army operated the Seminole Wars out of Fort Brooke, under what is now the lower stretch of Riverwalk. Ports along its polluted banks supported tanneries, factories and a busy commercial traffic to Latin America. The transformation accelerated after 1961 and the lower river turned the corner, from a living waterway to a rudely plumbed ditch.
An imaginary trip from the Green Swamp to Tampa Bay and onto the gulf illustrates this history. School children may visit Nature’s Classroom and fishermen drop a line at Lettuce Lake. Except for a handful of protected preserves, however, seawalls skirt the shores through most of the river’s course. Cypress swamps are now irrigated lawns. Where mangroves once provided a natural buffer against storms, residents pour concrete.
The history came to a culmination at Boca Ciega Bay, arguably the Tampa Bay region’s greatest single sacrifice. “Finger Frenzy,” homes built on the sandy spits (or in Tierra Verde, over American Indian bones), replaced thriving sea grass flats and oyster beds. Tract homes and cul-de-sacs demolished an entire ecosystem.
The homes are still there, of course, and the prudent brace for the inevitable storms.
But what happens when the storms come harder — and with greater frequency?
The 1950s optimism that justified dredging Boca Ciega Bay borders on delusion. From time memorial, regional planners claim, people “living along coastal areas have reshaped the contours of land and water since the earliest civilizations.”
But that statement is only half true. Building big along the coast, in fact, is a new idea.
And a bad one. Only within the past few centuries, novelist Amitav Ghosh reminds us, have people constructed major settlements “on the water’s edge”; we are “deranged,” to use Ghosh’s term, clueless to reality. Our trust in benevolent Nature, rather than storms that wipe us flat, is a novel concept.
Compare Tampa, Mumbai, or New York to any much older city. Wiser, more prudent civilizations tucked cities inland. Cairo sits 100 miles off the Mediterranean, at the head of the Nile Delta. London falls just past the tidal reach of the River Thames. Only since the past few centuries have our cities openly challenged the sea. The World Bank recently listed Tampa Bay as one of the ten most vulnerable municipal areas on the planet.
Floridians live a lie, grounded on the past century’s self-deception. Soon enough, not if but when, the Tampa Bay region will pay a costly price.
Models of sane stewardship
So what should we do? Thankfully, Florida has models. In the 1980s, Frank and Deborah Popper proposed a Buffalo Commons in the middle of the country. This huge natural area would re-naturalize the once-desolate Dust Bowl. A Buffalo Commons would limit resource extraction and human settlement, bring back both the prairie grass and supporting ungulates (our beloved bison), and foster ecotourism.
The Poppers argued the region did not receive enough rain to support farms or significant human population. They offered a plan for an orderly retreat, designed to minimize economic hardship; in the future, otherwise, a punishing drought would force people out, with financial suffering along the way.
Locals were outraged at the proposal, and predictably, aggressively tapped the once plentiful Ogallala aquifer to defend themselves against drought. The crisis in the Great Plains mirrors Florida’s own future. Relatively scant rainfall replenishes only 15% of Ogallala water use each year and today, more than 30% of the aquifer has been used up. Without significant changes in policy over the next half century, 70% of the water will be gone and Great Plains communities will suffer severe decline.
Tampa Bay’s reckoning
And what of Tampa Bay?
We face an environmental reckoning of our own design. The optimism of the 1950s fed the illusion that Floridians could build wherever (and as much as) we wanted. In the 1980s and 1990s, excessive groundwater pumping caused significant damage to nearby lakes and wetlands, and after much political wrangling — the region rallied, ultimately deciding to pay the stiff costs of developing alternative water sources to reduce the pressure on groundwater. And it worked: many of those dried up lakes and wetlands now have water in them! Happy ending, right? Not so fast.
Since the mid-19th century, when record-keeping began, Florida has earned the reputation as hurricane central: its 120 direct strikes from hurricanes are almost twice as many as the next most afflicted state (Texas). The Tampa Bay area took direct shots in 1848 and again in 1921. During the 1921 hurricane, where waves were breaking almost to Ybor City, only 30,000 lived in then-isolated Pinellas County.
Another strike is inevitable. But today, 2.5 million live in Pinellas and Hillsborough, with many close to the waterfront. Urban planner John Nolen saw the danger a century ago, and in the aftermath of the 1921 storm, warned that dense building on the water would not end well.
Then, as now, Floridians prioritized freedom over commonsense restrictions on land use. They rejected Nolen’s advice and set about building all species of institutions, infrastructure, mansions, McMansions, townhouses and condominiums where we are most vulnerable.
In 2004, Tampa Bay came close to its reckoning, before Hurricane Charley took a hard right turn and ransacked Punta Gorda instead. We almost got it in 2022 when Hurricane Ian also hooked right, plowing through Sanibel Island. Mercifully, nearly all of Sanibel’s leeward coast remains nature preserve and the island’s population density is low, just 7,000 residents, so damage was low. If the same storm had struck Pinellas, as predicted, the economic and human toll would have been catastrophic.
Yet Tampa Bay has another serious environmental problem, sea-level rise. Since 1946, sea-level rise has reached nearly 8 inches, and according to a recent report, waters will rise at least another foot by 2050 — and it will not stop there, perhaps reaching more than 8 feet by 2100. The good news is that sea level might not rise 8 feet by 2100. The bad news is that just 3 or 4 feet will cause more frequent flooding of near coastal areas on sunny days; stormwater drains will not be able to remove standard summer rains; and storm surge from even minor tropical storms will spread flood damage further inland.
Floridians can pretend that scientists have it all wrong. But climate change is a hammer, sure to strike here. The rough justice of American capitalism is already punishing waterfront homeowners with a spike in flood insurance rates. And this is separate from standard property insurance, which is also rising through the proverbial roof.
Is there greed and malfeasance within the insurance industry? Maybe. Are trial lawyers and unscrupulous other contractors part of the problem? Perhaps. But watch insurance companies closely. The actuaries get paid to analyze data and recognize reality for what it is; they adjust premiums accordingly. Over time, as flooding becomes more persistent, Tampa Bay will have to figure out what can be saved and what must be abandoned. A direct shot from a hurricane will likely speed up the process. It is hard to accept the unthinkable, but we can either begin the process now or wait until tragedy strikes.
Floridians, for all our changes, remain stuck in 1953. We cannot carry on as if nature will continue to do our bidding. We cannot pretend that we still live in the age of De Soto sedans and the Crew Cuts. Do our leaders possess the foresight to plan before the big storm hits? Before the big storms hit? Or do we keep playing the same 45, like a broken record?
Floridians need to reconcile with our past. Soon.
Gary R. Mormino’s most recent book is Dreams in the New Century: Instant Cities, Shattered Hopes, and Florida’s Turning Point. Christopher Meindl is author of the forthcoming Springs Country: People, Pumping, Pollution, Politics and the Search for Truth in Florida’s Springs. Thomas Hallock’s newest book is the forthcoming Happy Neighborhood, essays and poems. Mormino, Meindl and Hallock collaborate and teach through the Florida Studies Program (www.usf.edu/arts-sciences/florida-studies), on the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus.